Filmmakers with significant life experience outside the creative arts are becoming ever rarer creatures, but France’s Thomas Lilti exploits his original career to the fullest in his fitfully engaging comedy-drama “Hippocrates.” A trained doctor who still occasionally practices as a primary-care physician alongside his work as a writer and director, Lilti has fully applied the “write what you know” ethos to his sophomore feature, which follows a junior doctor’s eventful initiation into his profession. Of presumably strong appeal to health workers and their families, the pic should prove significantly less contagious among the general population, especially outside Francophone territories.
For his first stint as an intern doctor at a Paris hospital, young Benjamin (tousle-haired, boyish-looking Vincent Lacoste) has the advantage — if it may be so termed — of his father (Jacques Gamblin) already working there in a senior role. But with resources dwindling, Benjamin quickly makes a serious error when he fails to administer an electrocardiogram to a patient with abdominal pains, who dies in the night. No matter that the man, a regular patient nicknamed “Tsunami” (Thierry Levaret), was a chronically drunk, homeless man with severe cirrhosis and very limited life expectancy, or that the ECG machine was known to be broken. Authorities quickly close ranks to protect Benjamin and cover up his lapse, deflecting inquiries from Tsunami’s former wife (Julie Brochen), who has suddenly made herself known to them.
Since Benjamin is evidently modeled on the director, drawing on his own intern experiences and his life in the shadow of his doctor father, Lilti (“Les Yeux bandes,” 2007) can be forgiven for being tough on his protagonist, shying away from an overly sympathetic portrait. But audiences may struggle to develop a strong rooting interest in the petulant youngster, who seems all too happy to tell the lies necessary to avoid liability. And with the casting of Lacoste (2009 teen comedy “The French Kissers”) in bratty mode, audience empathy will be significantly dialed down.
Lilti makes a concession to the audience by providing a strongly likable character in the form of Abdel (Reda Kateb, also seen in Cannes this year as the taxi driver in Ryan Gosling’s “Lost River”), a capable doctor with years of experience who is given the lowly post of intern due to his foreign (Algerian) nationality. Abdel quickly emerges as the moral conscience of the film, especially when his emphasis on patient comfort sends him on a collision course with the authorities, to his great personal peril.
While the story arc of “Hippocrates” is not especially remarkable, the film works best in its depiction of life in the bowels of the hospital, which the public never visits. The unbelievably grim sleeping quarters for on-call doctors, which unlucky Abdel has as his permanent Paris home, are tatty, graffiti-plastered cells. The doctors’ refectory and shabby common rooms continue this theme of improvised wall decor, combining gallows humor with a bizarre adolescent fixation on oversized male genitalia. The contrast with the sanitized wards is jarring, adding welcome texture.
The caregivers’ obsession with the American TV show “House” provides another amusing angle, at the risk of reminding audiences that there is no shortage of medical drama available on their TV sets for free. Lilti compellingly conveys his point that in reality, the profession is full of exhausted, resource-strapped individuals required to make decisions with no easy right answers, undermined by bosses more concerned about the bottom line than about patient welfare. Spun off into a TV series, it would make a fresh alternative to the networks’ recent hospital-set efforts, albeit falling far short of their ratings.